“Smart” Meters Final Straw for Petersburg, VA

City on the brink: Petersburg can’t pay its bills and time is running out

By Gregory S. Schneider

She had felt sick the night before when she broke the news to department heads, and now it was 4:30 p.m. and Dironna Moore Belton still couldn’t eat her lunch. She opened her salad and found that her fiance had slipped in a note of encouragement.

She was going to need the note more than the food.

Belton, 38, the interim city manager, was about to step in front of the City Council and a packed hall of residents and tell them they had to make drastic — even shocking — cuts to city services. Reduce funding for schools whose students are already among the lowest-performing in the state. Cut fire and police in a city that has an unusually high rate of violent crime. Close departments, shrink city pay, shut down museums. Even withdraw support for the summer league baseball team.

The alternative was far worse.

Without these steps, Belton would tell them, Petersburg had about a month before it would confront the unthinkable: total collapse.

This city of 32,000 just south of Richmond is facing a financial crisis unusual for fiscally conservative Virginia — or any state. In at least the past four years, the city had spent all of its reserves and then kept spending money it didn’t have. It took out short-term loans based on anticipated tax revenue to keep paying bills.

When the loans ran out, it stopped paying. Some fire and rescue equipment has been repossessed. The city trash hauler is threatening to stop pickup. And lenders will not give Petersburg any more loans.

In his 46 years minding state ledgers in various roles, Virginia Finance Secretary Ric Brown has never seen anything like it. “As a rule, most Virginia localities are in pretty good shape,” Brown said.

What’s more, there is no mechanism in state law to help Petersburg — no provision for bankruptcy, no set way for the General Assembly to step in.

Belton’s task was to make the council confront this and act. Every member would hate to hear the message, and the prescription would draw gasps and cries of disbelief from residents at the meeting later that night. And to make it a little tougher for Belton, this toxic presentation was, in effect, her job application.

As interim city manager since March 4, Belton was living out a dream she had had since coming up through the Petersburg schools. Hers was an unlikely ambition — a young black girl hoping to lead a city that, at the time, was largely run by whites. Now she had the chance. But she had to apply for the permanent job at the same time she was recommending measures no city wants to do.

So, no, she hadn’t eaten lunch. She didn’t have the stomach for it.

Trouble with water meters

Petersburg’s budget crisis began coming to light early this year, but the city has a long relationship with suffering. Residents are quick to cite three momentous calamities, even though one occurred more than 150 years ago.

The siege of Petersburg during the Civil War continues to define the place. The fame of that nine-month stalemate, when Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant camped outside of town and residents black and white starved within, has long been a lure for history-minded tourists. Old families still tell tales of scraping by.

More recently, in 1985, the tobacco giant Brown & Williamson moved out of state, taking thousands of jobs and pulling the props out of the local economy. And in 1993, a deadly tornado blasted through the downtown historic district and set back revitalization efforts by decades.

Add in the recent recession and nationwide real estate crisis, and today Petersburg’s economy is a shambles. Nearly three in 10 residents live in poverty, more than twice the statewide rate. As the population has declined from its peak in 1980, it has also gotten older — more than 15 percent of residents are 65 or older, vs. 13 percent statewide.

And its streets of dilapidated and abandoned homes can make Petersburg the butt of jokes, such as earlier this month when actor Rainn Wilson, in town to shoot a movie, posted an Instagram photo of a boarded-up building behind a sign proclaiming “Upscale Apartment Living” and captioned it “. . . courtesy of Petersburg, Virginia.”

So it’s not surprising that the city would have budget problems. But the magnitude went either unnoticed or unaddressed. The previous city manager oversaw construction of a $12.7 million public library and, early this year, had the council considering plans to replace the 1856 city hall building with an $18 million complex. It all unraveled, however, after a problem with water meters.

A campaign to install new “smart” meters throughout Petersburg was a disaster. Some of the new devices were calibrated wrong and some were installed incorrectly. Water billings went haywire. Some residents weren’t billed for months at a time while others got exorbitant bills. And revenue stopped flowing to the city, causing a money crunch.

Mayor W. Howard Myers said the council fired in March its city manager, William E. Johnson III, in large part because of the meter fiasco. For an interim manager, city leaders turned to Belton, who had come to oversee Petersburg’s transit system in 2013 after working in state government.

“We felt she was doing a wonderful job with our bus transit system, and we felt that — being vested in the city of Petersburg — she would be the best individual to help us move forward,” Myers said.

See the rest of the story here.


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KCMO smart meter fire sparks investigation

KCP&L says smart meter issues rare in metro

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nearly every home and business in the metro have one.

Kansas City Power & Light is at the tail end of a two and a half year project to install more than 700,000 smart meters across the metro.

It’s a small part of the billions of dollars utilities have invested in smart meters across the U.S.

But there are serious concerns Waverly Galbreath experienced firsthand. The burn marks are visible on his KCMO home.

A burned-out circuit board is the only remaining part of the smart meter at Galbreath’s home where the July fire started.

Smart meter fire

Galbreath wasn’t at home when it started.

“I got a call from my neighbor and he said my house was on fire. But when I arrived, I found out the meter had exploded,” he said.

A KCP&L spokeswoman said the utility is investigating the fire, but she said this type of issue in the metro is very rare.

KCP&L Vice President Chuck Caisley said in a statement to the 41 Action News Investigators, “Out of the more than 700,000 meters KCP&L has installed, we are only aware of a handful of meter malfunctions.”

There are multiple smart meter makers and different models.

The company KCP&L uses has had past issues in other places.

Despite few problems in the metro, hundreds of thousands of smart meters have been recalled in the last several years across North America.

And hundreds of fires have broken out in California, Texas, Florida, Nevada, Illinois and across Canada.

“It really is a very dangerous issue and should be treated as a real unprecedented emergency in your area,” said Canadian electrician Professor Curtis Bennett.

Bennett is in an ongoing Canadian legal battle over smart meters.

Bennett sent the 41 Action News Investigators thermal images showing a dangerous smart meter connection running too hot and a normal one.

“Now you’ve got this plastic piece of junk on their property and that’s actually what’s burning inside that meter base with the wires,” he said.

But Caisley said KCP&L has had a total of six problems out of more than 700,000 meters.

He said the utility has returned a couple meters which have overheated to its supplier.

California insurance adjuster Norman Lambe currently has seven open smart meter fire claims on his desk.

Of the dozens of smart meter fires he’s investigated, he said overheating is the major issue.

“They are sparking, they are manufacturing too much heat,” he said. “In any given situation when you have too much heat and you have material to burn, meaning unfortunately wiring in the individual’s home or business, you’re going to have a fire.”

America’s utilities are spending billions of dollars to install smart meters.

The old ones with the dials, called analog meters, only recorded electricity usage, requiring a meter reader to get the information.

Smart meters transmit your usage information to the power company.

Lambe said those transmissions can cause overheating.

Canadian Brian Thiesen has spent hundreds of hours over five years researching smart meters. He produced a video about smart meter fires.

“These fires are going to continue to happen because again, the basic laws of electricity are being violated,” Thiesen said.

But KCP&L’s statement said, “At this point, we have found nothing that leads us to believe there is a problem or safety issue with the new meters.”

Galbreath has a different take.

He was without power for over a month after his home’s smart meter fire. He said he’s lucky the wood-shingled home didn’t go up in flames.

When asked if other metro residents should be concerned about smart meters he said, “I think so, I really do.”

KCP&L said the type of smart meters they’re using have not been recalled.

The utility’s statement also said the vast majority of house fires are caused by factors other than meters like outdated and overloaded wiring.

Bennett told the 41 Action News Investigators smart meter connections to old bases and faulty wiring are a serious part of the fire problem.

A spokesman for the Board of Public Utilities, BPU, said that utility has installed 70,000 smart meters in Wyandotte County.

BPU spokesman David Mehlhaff said there have been no reports of smart meter fires there.

To check on your own meter, Lambe said the best way is to feel your meter at the end of the day when it’s cool outside.

He said if it’s hot to the touch, call your utility company.

Andy Alcock can be reached at anderson.alcock@kshb.com.

Original story here.

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